In the last days before Thursday’s Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee, lacking money and staff, is adopting a freewheeling and inexpensive strategy of asymmetrical political warfare -- inviting reporters to a pheasant hunt, a morning jog and a haircut -- to needle his better-funded, better-organized challenger, Mitt Romney.
As the campaign enters a new year, the daily battle of visual images increasingly pits Huckabee’s Doo Dah Parade-style theatrics against Romney’s Rose Parade of stately, flowery events. On Monday, Huckabee’s approach culminated in the most head-spinning news conference of the presidential campaign.
Huckabee aides had set the stage -- a hotel conference room here -- for the former Arkansas governor to attack Romney. Three poster boards rested on easels to display Romney’s gaffes and policy reversals. A blue backdrop read “Enough Is Enough” in reference to Romney’s TV ad attacks on Huckabee. And a screen had been set up to project a new Huckabee ad attacking the former Massachusetts governor for his record on crime, healthcare, spending and abortion.
Enter Huckabee, who immediately pulled a switcheroo.
He announced that, in the hour before, he had had a change of heart. He would not air the ad after all, nor would he release a “multi-page dossier” on Romney. He suggested he couldn’t in good conscience support a negative attack.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” he asked, borrowing without attribution from the Gospel of Mark.
Then, after a few audio problems, he showed the reporters the negative ad, which was made Sunday. By doing so, Huckabee ensured the ad would be aired -- for free -- by television news programs, and possibly run far more often than if he had simply paid to put it on TV. He said this weekend that his campaign had only about $2 million in the bank.
“We all can talk about changing the tone of politics and the direction and the way we elect our officials,” he said. “And sometimes we talk about it and then we end up doing the same things, and at some point we have to decide, can we change the kind of politics and the level of discourse? And so I’ve got to believe that we can, but it’s got to start somewhere, and so it might as well start here, and it might as well start with me.”
When Huckabee decided to show reporters the ad he had pulled, they laughed derisively and began to shout questions during a thoroughly postmodern exchange.
Reporters accused Huckabee of cynically playing the ad to get more attention for its attack on Romney -- while trying to appear positive by saying he was pulling the ad. In response, Huckabee suggested the reporters were cynical for thinking he was cynical. That in turn drew questions about whether Huckabee’s accusation of media cynicism was cynical.
Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Drake University in Des Moines, called the ad “a verbal baseball bat.”
“It sends a message, ‘Don’t fool around with me. I can be tough,’ ” he said. “The other message is: ‘I’m such a nice guy. I’m going to turn the other cheek.’ ”
While some might discern “a certain political calculation,” Goldford added, as long as television stations broadcast the spot in their coverage of the campaign, Huckabee “gets to have it both ways.”
It was not the first time Huckabee has introduced provocative language or imagery into the campaign only to plead innocence later. In December, he raised Romney’s religion with the New York Times, asking, “Don’t Mormons believe Jesus and the devil are brothers?” He later apologized for what is a common anti-Mormon slur.
Before Christmas, he aired a paid TV ad that showed a cross in the background. Huckabee said the cross was merely the outline of a bookshelf and was inadvertent. The controversy gave the ad a much broader audience on TV news programs and on the Internet.
Romney, for his part, continued to play the straight man Monday, sticking to an intense schedule of seven events in towns through northeastern and central Iowa.
Outside a pizza restaurant in Independence, Romney said: “The press conference which Gov. Huckabee had today I think is confusing to the people of Iowa.” Romney’s spokesman said the campaign was “not the place for ball-juggling or pratfalls and stunts.”
Stunt or not, Huckabee’s news conference allowed the former governor to dominate campaign news for the day. What was unclear was whether this had been his intent.
Although he said he made the decision without calculation less than an hour beforehand, Huckabee seemed to signal his intentions early Monday morning on NBC’s “Today” show. “We’re not going to be releasing negatives ads,” he told Matt Lauer.
Huckabee’s aides maintained that he kept his decision from them until the final moments. Charmaine Yoest, the press aide who put together the news conference, said she had received only five minutes of warning. (Unable to answer reporters’ questions about the switch, Yoest declared: “This is an evolving strategy.”)
Other top advisors to the candidate, including former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley and Huckabee’s Iowa chairman, Bob Vander Plaats, said they learned of the decision on board the Huckabee campaign bus about an hour before the news conference.
Huckabee said some staffers were upset at him for keeping them in the dark.
One person associated with the campaign called his move a mistake and “too cute by half.” “What kind of stupid game is he playing?” said the campaign insider, who did not want to be identified questioning Huckabee’s strategy. “To me it’s just nuts. I don’t understand it.”
Huckabee reveled in his unusual decision. “It’s a huge gamble on my part,” he said.
But in some ways, Huckabee’s turn was also conventional. Negative campaigning is often risky in a multi-candidate race because both the attacked candidate and the attacker can suffer, helping the other candidates. And negative ads have backfired in previous Iowa races.
Huckabee’s stunts have also compensated for his organizational and fundraising challenges. He scheduled a pheasant hunt in Iowa early one morning last week, creating television pictures that dominated the airwaves as he jetted off to Florida to raise money.
On Monday, during his afternoon campaign event, dozens of cameras recorded the candidate as he got a haircut and shave from local barber Scott Sales.
In the barber’s chair, Huckabee acknowledged he had spent much of the last week calling Romney’s ads dishonest.
The event allowed Huckabee to reprise his Romney criticisms at the same time he indicated he would not stoop to Romney’s level and run negative ads.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said.
The haircut -- and the event -- cost the Huckabee campaign just $75.
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Nona Yates contributed to this report.